The Labor Theory of Exercise: Long Live Dance Dance Revolution

DDR didn’t teach me to work myself into oblivion, propelled by shame and chalky smoothies. DDR taught me to get some water, sit down, talk to a friend, send a text, lean on that rail. For DDR, exercise wasn’t some frantic tailspin toward some punishing end.

by Stephen Kearse on October 13th, 2015

I discovered Dance Dance Revolution in the fall of 2005. Before I even graduated to the arcade machine, I spent months learning the game at my friend’s house, sliding around on a polyfoam and plastic gameboard for the PlayStation 2. I was so committed that I would visit even when he wasn’t home.

DDR’s main feature was a gamepad that required players to use their bodies, particularly their feet, to press buttons in tandem with programmed steps synchronized to music. The gameplay unfolded in real time, with players stepping or misstepping on the gamepad as the music played, eventually either completing the song by properly aligning their steps or failing the song by mistiming their steps.

My first realization about DDR was that this wasn’t dancing. There was stomping and turning and twisting and jumping and music, but this was something much more bare than dancing. DDR was exercise: artificially induced stress executed with extreme precision, an algorithm imposed on the body.

DDR was fun as far as algorithms go – much more fun than jumping rope or trotting on a treadmill – but it was also labor. Whenever I played sweat always came quickly, pouring down my face, blanketing my back, pooling in my belly button, saturating my thighs. No matter where I played – air-conditioned malls, cool basements, breezy boardwalk arcades – the sweat was inevitable.

Vintage sign reading "Movieland Arcade."

Photo CC-BY Yutaka Seki, filtered.

Some people tried to downplay the labor of DDR. These cool cats picked hard songs and casually leaned on the rail attached to every arcade machine. Sometimes they didn’t even sweat. But their skill levels always revealed how much work they’d put in. Feet don’t synchronize with flurries of cascading arrows overnight. Whenever I saw someone at the summit of skill, I knew they had climbed. Even operating the machine took a certain know-how. The menus on the machine were brimming with information about song length, BPM, the number of steps, and game level that only made sense if you had a history with it.

I lost 35 pounds during my first 4 months playing DDR. I had been going to Bally Total Fitness with my mom for nearly a year, using as many machines as I could in search of a six-pack and pecs to match. But I inevitably found myself staring at a TV or my phone or a butt. DDR brought an intense focus to fitness. I didn’t zone out when I played it. I was constantly in the moment, feeling each step and each note of each song.

The music of DDR was a strange blend of things people like to dance to – techno, trance, jungle, pop, soul, funk, drum ‘n bass, hip-hop – but people who liked to dance tended to dislike it. I think they found something objectionable about how stripped-down it was, taking genres and reducing them to their formal elements: percussion, rhythm, tempo.  

I’m not a formalist. I love swagger and excess and style, but DDR didn’t allow for that. A friend once recorded me playing DDR in his living room. In the recording, I do some head nodding and excited humming at the beginning of the song, but as the song progresses my movements become more intentional, more direct, more focused, my nerdy swagger dissolving in the torrent of my labor. I quickly grew to like becoming so machine-like, so efficient.

I still like the work of exercise, but there’s a loud inner voice that constantly begs me to change my mind. He screams for me to bring on the spinning classes and the tough mudders and the sugar-filled protein shakes and the shake weights and the ab rollers and the ab rockets and the ab coasters and the ab blasters. Anything to make that workout not feel like fucking work.

But I don’t listen to him because he seems not only to want to spend a lot of money, but he clearly doesn’t value work. He’s convinced that fitness is a thing that should just happen once enough time has elapsed doing something else, like listening to music or walking. He doesn’t recognize the difference between sauna sweat and sweat from a jog. Sweat is sweat, he shrugs.

I know why he feels this way. He’s been to the gym and read the goofy t-shirts of his hulking peers: no pain no gain; you can feel sore tomorrow or you can feel sorry tomorrow; if it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t work; if you’re tired of starting over stop giving up. Shame on him, shame around him, shame within him. He can’t deal.

He shouldn’t deal. DDR didn’t teach me to work myself into oblivion, propelled by shame and chalky smoothies. DDR taught me to get some water, sit down, talk to a friend, send a text, lean on that rail. For DDR, exercise wasn’t some frantic tailspin toward some punishing end. Between songs, you had 99 seconds to just do whatever. It was a finite break, but it showed that the labor of the game wasn’t opposed to leisure. An engine that doesn’t idle doesn’t work.

DDR dance pad with shoes dancing over it.

Photo CC-BY elPadawan, filtered.

Looking back, my favorite part of DDR was its lack of concern about the rest of my life. DDR never asked about my weight or my heart rate or my cholesterol. DDR didn’t even ask me to dance. All it wanted from me was tokens and quarters. I like how terminal this relationship was. Unlike a FitBit or a FuelBand, DDR never insisted on joining me at dinner and in the bed and in the shower, slowly converting every second of my life into an all-inclusive fitness project, a 360-deal signed in blood that’s never as healthy as it “should” be.

DDR wasn’t about tricking myself into exercising or making exercise my life. DDR had no point. Its learning curves swerved back into each other like grooves on a vinyl. When I noticed the weight that had dropped off, it didn’t feel like a burden had been lifted. It felt like I had been spending a lot of time at my friend’s house, honing a new skill just because I could, just because I wanted to.

The ongoing result of this approach to exercise is a healthy relationship with my body. When I look in the mirror I don’t see an eternal battle between muscle and fat, success and failure, beauty and monstrosity. I just see my body. My hips do lie – they’re quite large for someone who runs 15+ miles a week – but only a fool would believe in the claims of hips. My body doesn’t need to perpetually advertise its secrets, existing solely to be seen at one angle, in one way, in one context. It just needs to work. And it does, because I enable it to by not micromanaging it with bizarre diets or driving it to exhaustion with extreme workouts.

I have a job, a dog, and a relationship these days, so I can’t throw my time and quarters into a black hole of Japanese rhythm games. But I still sweat. Three to four days a week, a treadmill gives me a tight squeeze. It’s not as fun as DDR, but it’s also not torture. I can feel the beams of judgment from the aerobics addicts and the shaming hulks, but I think I’ve found my rhythm. It’s an odd rhythm, but it’s a rhythm I can keep. Exercise is just a thing I do now, not a holy crusade or a Sisyphean curse.

Weights and other gym equipment shot in black and white.

Photo CC-BY Jason Rogers, filtered.

Part of me understands why Mark Greif is against exercise. For him, modern exercise is a return to the original factory floor, a place where workers destroyed themselves in service of capital. He sees the conveyor belts of the treadmills and the exhausted faces of gym-goers and he sees history repeating itself. Exercise doesn’t liberate, he warns. It incarcerates, trapping us in toxic notions of how our bodies are supposed to look and supposed to work.

He’s not entirely wrong. Exercise, labor, can be dangerously confining. But that same factory floor that Greif wants to avoid can also be a site for seizing labor and producing fun and camaraderie, and bodies that we’re not ashamed of. Though what that looks like will vary from body to body, it starts with recognizing which machines are on our side.

DDR is definitely on mine.